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Virtual Reality's Next Big Thing Could Be Wireless Tech

Wireless VR prototype uses millimeter wave technology to move the necessary amounts of heavy data.
MoVR. Image: Jason Dorfman, MIT CSAIL

I admire the HTC Vive virtual reality headset, but I've always felt it leaves me too tethered to stones-and-bones reality. That feeling usually has little to do with graphics or controls; instead, it's rooted in the literal tether of the HDMI cables that snake around my legs and threaten to send me tumbling to the carpet as I turn around and explore. But thanks to researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, that may no longer pose much of a problem.


Enter "MoVR," a system they say will allow PCs and VR headsets like the Vive to communicate without the usual wireless pitfalls of framerate and graphics loss. That's especially essential with virtual reality, which must handle not one but two screens blasting high-resolution images into the user's eyes, with each needing data injections of well over 6 gigabits per second to stave off motion sickness.

"Our hardware is very simple and it should not have a significant financial impact on the headset's price in high-volume production," project lead and CSAIL PhD candidate Omid Abari told me in an email interview.

But Abari amended this in a followup set of questions when I asked for specifics.

"We frankly don't know at this time," he said. "mmWave technology is a very new technology and their components prices are constantly changing. It's very difficult to predict how much it would cost when they go to high-volume production."

CSAIL's solution involves high-frequency millimeter wave technology, which easily handles much more data wirelessly and currently figures into a lot of experiments for 5G mobile technology. It also tends to have problems with line-of-sight interruptions as simple was waving your hand between the device and the receiver, but CSAIL worked around that by designing MoVR devices to act as a "programmable mirror." So instead of having your hand block the signal, MoVR would detect the direction of the incoming "mmWaves" and change their angle to meet the receiver.As impressive as MoVR is, Abari doesn't seem to believe that wireless VR is the big feature VR fence-sitters have been waiting for.


"I don't think the dangers of tripping over cords has been a major factor in discouraging the adoption of VR, but certainly anecdotally I've heard from a lot of VR users that the reduced mobility of an HDMI cable is something that makes them less likely to use VR for long periods of time," he said.

But their work is certainly part of a larger push. CSAIL's announcement came only a couple of days after the reveal of the TPCast Vive wireless kit out of China, a wireless headset that sold out within 18 minutes after being offered for $220 on Vive's Chinese site. Technical details are surprisingly scant, but supposedly it can deliver 2K images wirelessly at 90 frames per seconds while adding 2 milliseconds of latency. Back in October, the Oculus team teased their own wireless visions with what they called the "Santa Cruz Prototype," while limiting any demonstrations to a brief god's eye view of a low-detail neighborhood. I asked Abari what he thought of these alternatives, and he didn't sound all that optimistic.

Footage of the TPCAST kit in action. Image: UploadVR.

"I'm not specifically familiar with TPCAST and how it does things differently," he said. "However, a lot of existing 'solutions' do not actually provide enough data-rate for VR when the signal gets blocked. Although these options might work for static links (such as HDMI TVs), they will not work in VR applications where the user moves and the signal gets blocked."

MoVR looks a little clunky right now, with its two directional antennas for each device being roughly half the size of a credit card and lacking any semblance of style. Soon, though, Abari hopes to get the each device down to about the size of a smartphone so each device can easily be placed around a room in the manner of the HTC Vive's existing sensors. Omid believes that "incorporating MoVR into existing headsets would probably be more viable" than making standalone additions like the TPCAST kit, but adds that we "have not definitely decided on this yet."

Already, he said, developers are starting to contact him, and they're "excited to see if there may be some opportunities to collaborate." And if MoVR works out as well as Abari's hopes, it could spur the creation of much more imaginative virtual reality experiences than we've seen so far.

"I definitely think that wireless VR will spur much more creativity in the VR space," Abari said. "Now that we can use headsets without cords, VR developers can make applications and games which require the user to walk around. This is something that simply wasn't possible with the tethered headsets."